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Finance minister: Zimbabwe has $217 left in the bank

Though economic conditions have improved in Zimbabwe since the days of 231 million percent inflation, this week brought some pretty disturbing news

After paying public workers' salaries last week, the balance in cash-strapped Zimbabwe's government public account stood at just $217, Finance Minister Tendai Biti said Tuesday.

"Last week when we paid civil servants there was $217 (left) in government coffers," Biti told journalists in the capital Harare, claiming some of them had healthier bank balances than the state.

"The government finances are in paralysis state at the present moment. We are failing to meet our targets."

It's hard to think of a public servant than a less enviable job than Biti's, but despite this week's news, he deserves some credit for a pretty remarkable turnaround. The inflation that made the country world famous is now under control, thanks to his decision to abolish the country's currency. And there's been GDP growth every year since he came into office following a decade of contraction. 

Nonetheless, the state's cash flow problem is made more dire by the international sanctions on Robert Mugabe's government -- Biti is allied with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change -- which may make it harder to borrow the funds need to keep the state operating. The constitutional referendum and elections scheduled for this year, which are estimated to cost at least $104 million, will also not help. 

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4 things to keep in mind about 'securing the border'

With President Barack Obama due to pitch his new immigration reform plan today -- a plan that is likely to include a number of new border security measures in addition to providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants -- the release of a new report from the South Texas border by the Washington Office on Latin America seems particularly well timed. The authors, Adam Isacson and Maureen Meyer, reach several conclusions that are rarely discussed in the U.S. media but are worth keeping in mind as the new debate over border security heats up:

1. The migrants crossing the border are increasingly non-Mexican. Overall, arrests along the border are down since the mid-2000s, suggesting that fewer people are attempting to cross. The exception is the area the authors examine -- the Rio Grande Valley sector in South Texas bording Mexico's Tamaulipas state, where there was a 60-70 percent increase in apprehensions in 2011. 

Virtually all of this growth consists of what local authorities call "OTMS" -- other than Mexican. This migrants are mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador and in addition to economic concerns, are often motivated by the skyrocketing crime rates in their home countries. For the first time, non-Mexicans now account for the majority of migrants apprehended in South Texas. The Tamaulipas-Texas section of the border is the closest geographically to these countries. 

2. Deportations can be death sentences Though it continues to be painted as soft on illegal immigration by Republican opponents, the Obama administration has touted the record number of deporations it has carried out, more than 1.5 million so far, as evidence that it takes border enforcement seriously. But there's been less discussion of the often dangerous fate that awaits these immigrants when they arrive back in Mexico. Isacson and Meyer write: 

Despite the region’s security crisis, the U.S. government continues to deport apprehended migrants to these Mexican border cities in large numbers. Mexican migration authorities have counted more than 58,000 deportees arriving in Matamoros alone in 2012. In this city, agents of the Grupo Beta—Mexico’s National Migration Institute’s search and rescue unit—told us that rather than rescuing migrants in distress, their main task is now protecting repatriated migrants. In addition to Mexicans detained in the interior of the United States and deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the relatively new U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Alien Transfer Exit Program (ATEP) deports some detained migrants “laterally” by sending them to Mexican border towns hundreds of miles from where they were captured in  order to break the link between the migrant and his smuggler. Most migrants apprehended in south Texas who end up being deported through ATEP get sent on a near-daily flight 1,000 miles westward to Calexico, California, from which they are sent into the relatively low-crime city of Mexicali, Baja California. However, a smaller but very troubling number of ATEP migrants are still detained elsewhere and deported into Matamoros. As they arrive in this unfamiliar city, these deportees face a high probability of being preyed upon—or even recruited—by the criminals who control illegal activity. That U.S. authorities would be moving migrants from elsewhere along the border and deporting them into high-risk Matamoros is inexplicable.

In fact, a review of data from Mexican security and migration authorities reveals a troubling trend: as border zones become less secure, they receive more deportees. In every Mexican border state that saw an increase in homicides since 2009, deportations from the United States also increased. In Mexican states where homicides declined, deportations also declined.

The authors make clear that they're not suggesting U.S. immigration authorities are intentionally putting deported migrants in harm's way, but the data suggests their eventual safety is not a major concern. 

3. Increased drug trafficking is not leading to "spillover" violence Increased security measures along the border does not appear to be slowing down drug smugglers, with seizures of heroin, marijuana, and increasingly popular liquid methamphetamine continuing to rise in South Texas. However, the authors find a wide concensus among local law enforcement agencies that the drug trade has not led to an increase in violent crime on the U.S. side of the border. In fact, 10 of the 13 largest U.S. cities along the border have seen their violent crime rates drop.  

4. Weaker cartels may not necessarily be good for migrants The report finds that the Zetas cartel's traditional hold on this area of the border may be slipping due to internal divisions over control of the smuggling routes and a drawn-out war with the rival Sinaloa cartel. Analyzing the report, Elyssa Pachico at Insight Crime suggests that despite the fact that Zetas have frequently victimized migrants along the border, their diminished control may not necessarily make things safer: 

As InSight Crime previously documented in a three-part report on the dangers facing migrants, the Zetas are not the only organization who pose a threat to those moving northwards from Central America. The Zetas typically contract street gangs to harass, rob, and even kidnap migrants as they move along their route. With the Zetas weakening, this could possibly empower street gangs to prey on migrants even more aggressively, in order to keep the money extorted from migrants for themselves. If the Zetas continue to lose power and influence along the US-Mexico border, it will likely make migrants' journey even more dangerous and unpredictable.

None of these issues are likely to be much discussed in the forthcoming debate on the border policy, but they're an important part of the bigger picture.